How Much Carbohydrates Should We Eat?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in carbohydrates

The “Goldilocks Effect”

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

How much carbohydrates should we eat?

how much carbohydrates should we eatThe low-carb wars rage on. Low-carb enthusiasts claim that low-carb diets are healthy. Many health experts warn about the dangers of low-carb diets. Several studies have reported that low-carb diets increase risk of mortality (shorten lifespan).

However, two recent studies have come to the opposite conclusion. Those studies reported that high carbohydrate intake increased mortality, and low carbohydrate intake was associated with the lowest mortality.

One of those studies, called the Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology (PURE) study was published just last year. It included data from 135,335 participants from 18 countries across 5 continents. That’s a very large study, and normally we expect very large studies to be accurate. The results from the PURE study had low-carb enthusiasts doing a victory lap and claiming it was time to rewrite nutritional guidelines to favor low-carb diets.

Whenever controversies like this arise, reputable scientists are motivated to take another look at the question. They understand that all studies have their weaknesses and biases. So, they look at previous studies very carefully and try to design a study that eliminates the weaknesses and biases of those studies. Their goal is to design a stronger study that reconciles the differences between the previous studies.

how much carbohydrates should we eat studySuch a study has just been published (SB Seidelmann et al, The Lancet, doi.org/10.1016/S2468-2667(18)30135-X ). This study resolves the conflicting data and finally answers the question: “How much carbohydrates should we be eating if we desire a long and healthy life?” The answer is “Enough.”

I call this “The Goldilocks Effect” You may remember “Goldilocks And The Three Bears.” One bed was too hard. One bed was too soft. But, one bed was “just right.” One bowl of porridge was too hot. One was two cold. But, one was “just right.”  According to this study, the same is true for carbohydrate intake. High carbohydrate intake is unhealthy. Low carbohydrate intake is unhealthy. But, moderate carbohydrate intake is “just right.”

How Was The Study Done?

This study was performed in two parts. This first part drew on data from the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) study. That study enrolled 15,428 men and women, aged 45-64, from four US communities between 1987 and 1989. This group was followed for an average of 25 years, during which time 6283 people died. Carbohydrate intake was calculated based on food frequency questionnaires administered when participants enrolled in the study and again 6 years later. The study evaluated the association between carbohydrate intake and mortality.

The second part was a meta-analysis that combined the data from the ARIC study with all major clinical studies since 2007 that measured carbohydrate intake and mortality and lasted 5 years or more. The total number of participants included in this meta-analysis was 432,179, and it included data from both studies that claimed low-carbohydrate intake was associated with decreased mortality.

 

How Much Carbohydrates Should We Eat?

 

how much carbohydrates should we eat ripThe results from the ARIC study were:

  • The relationship between mortality and carbohydrate intake was a U-shaped curve.
  • The lowest risk of death was observed with a moderate carbohydrate intake (50-55%). This is the intake recommended by current nutrition guidelines.
  • The highest risk of death was observed with a low carbohydrate intake (<40%).
  • The risk of death also increased with very high carbohydrate intake (>70%).
  • When the investigators used the mortality data to estimate life expectancy, they predicted a 50-year old participant would have a projected life expectancy of:
  • 1 years if they had a moderate intake of carbohydrates.
  • Their life expectancy was 4 years less if they had a low carbohydrate intake.
  • Their life expectancy was 1.1 year less if they had a very high carbohydrate intake.
  • The risk associated with low carbohydrate intake was affected by what the carbohydrate was replaced with.
  • When carbohydrate was replaced with animal protein and animal fat there was an increased risk of mortality on a low-carb diet. The animal-based low-carb diet contained more beef, pork, lamb, chicken and fish. It was also higher in saturated fat.
  • how much carbohydrates should we eat plantbasedWhen carbohydrate was replaced with plant protein and plant fats, there was a decreased risk of mortality on a low-carb diet. The plant-based low-carb diet contained more nuts, peanut butter, dark or whole grain breads, chocolate, and white bread. It was also higher in polyunsaturated fats.
  • The effect of carbohydrate intake on mortality was virtually the same for all-cause mortality, cardiovascular mortality, and non-cardiovascular mortality.
  • There was no significant affect of carbohydrate intake on long-term weight gain (another myth busted).

The results from the meta-analysis were very similar. When the data from all studies were combined:

  • Both low carbohydrate diets and very high carbohydrate diets were associated with increased mortality.
  • Meat-based low-carb diets increased mortality, and plant-based low-carb diets decreased mortality.
  • Once again, the results were the same for total mortality, cardiovascular mortality, and non-cardiovascular mortality.

The authors concluded: “Our findings suggest a negative long-term association between life-expectancy on both low carbohydrate and high carbohydrate diets…These data also provide further evidence that animal-based low carbohydrate diets should be discouraged. Alternatively, when restricting carbohydrate intake, replacement of carbohydrates with predominantly plant-based fats and proteins could be considered as a long-term approach to healthy aging.”

Why Were Some Previous Studies Misleading?

This study also resolved the discrepancies between previous studies. The authors pointed out that the average carbohydrate intake is very different in Europe and the US than in Asian countries and low-income countries. In the US and Europe, mean carbohydrate intake is about 50% of calories and it ranges from 25% to 70% of calories. With that range of carbohydrate intake, it is possible to observe the increase in mortality associated with both low and high carbohydrate intakes.

White rice is a staple in Asian countries, and protein is a garnish rather than a main course. Consequently, overall carbohydrate intake is greater in Asian countries and very few Asians eat a low carbohydrate diet. High protein foods tend to be more expensive than high carbohydrate foods. Thus, very few people in developing countries can afford to follow a low carbohydrate diet, and overall carbohydrate intake also tends to be higher.

how much carbohydrates should we eat aricTherefore, in Asian and developing countries the average carbohydrate intake is greater (~61%) than in the US and Europe, and the range of carbohydrate intake is from 45% to 80% of calories. With that range of intake, it is only possible to see the increase in mortality associated with high carbohydrate intake.

Both the studies that low-carb enthusiast quote to support their claim that low-carb diets are healthy relied heavily on data from Asian and developing countries. In fact, when the authors of the current study overlaid the data from the PURE study with their ARIC data, there was an almost perfect fit. The only difference was that their ARIC data covered both low and high carbohydrate intake while the PURE study touted by low-carb enthusiasts only covered moderate to high carbohydrate intake. [I have given you my rendition of the graph on the left. If you would like to see the data yourself, look at the paper .]

Basically, low-carb advocates are telling you that diets with carbohydrate intakes of 30% or less are healthy based on studies that did not include carbohydrate intakes below 40%. That is misleading. The studies they quote are incapable of detecting the risks of low carbohydrate diets.

What Does This Mean For You?

There are several important take-home lessons from this study:

  • All major studies agree that very high carbohydrate intake is unhealthy. In part, that reflects the fact that diets with high carbohydrate intake are likely to be high in sodas and sugary junk foods. It may also reflect the fact that diets which are high in carbohydrate are inevitably low in protein or healthy fats or both.
  • how much carbohydrates should we eat low-carbAll studies that cover the full range of carbohydrate intake agree that low carbohydrate intake is also unhealthy. It shortens life expectancy of a 50-year old by about 4 years.
  • The studies quoted by low carb enthusiasts to support their claim that low-carb diets are healthy don’t include carbohydrate intakes below 40%. That means their claims are misleading. The studies they quote are incapable of detecting the risks of low carbohydrate diets.
  • Meat-based low-carb diets decrease life expectancy while plant-based low carb diets increase life expectancy. This is consistent with previous studies. For more details on those studies, see my article “Are Any Low-Carb Diets Healthy?” in “Health Tips From The Professor” or my book, “Slaying The Food Myths.”

The health risks of meat-based low-carb diets may be due to the saturated fat content or the heavy reliance on red meat. However, the risks are just as likely to be due to the foods these diets leave out – typically fruits, whole grains, legumes, and some vegetables. Proponents of low-carb diets assume that you can make up for the missing nutrients by just taking a multivitamin. However, each food group also provides a unique combination of phytonutrients and fibers. The fibers, in turn, influence your microbiome. Simply put, whenever you leave out whole food groups, you put your health at risk.

Limitations Of This Study

how much carbohydrates should we eat limitationsMy main concern with this study and all previous studies is that they lump all carbohydrates together, as if they were equally healthy or unhealthy. We should really be focusing on healthy carbohydrates versus unhealthy carbohydrates, healthy proteins versus unhealthy proteins, and healthy fats versus unhealthy fats. We should be focusing on foods.

For example, the plant-based low carbohydrate diets in this study probably had a higher percentage of healthy carbohydrates because those diets feature whole, plant-based foods. The very high carbohydrate diets in this study probably had a higher percentage of unhealthy carbohydrates. However, we have no idea whether the diets with moderate carbohydrate intake featured healthy carbohydrates or unhealthy carbohydrates. That is critical because moderate carbohydrate intake was the baseline to which all other diets were compared.

An important unanswered question is: “What is the relationship between carbohydrate intake and lifespan when most of the carbohydrates come from whole, plant-based foods?” Is low carbohydrate intake healthier or less healthy than moderate carbohydrate intake? Is high carbohydrate intake still less healthy? We have no idea. No studies have analyzed the data in that way.

Similarly, we know from multiple studies that meat-based, low-carb diets increase mortality and plant-based, low-carb diets decrease mortality when compared to moderate carbohydrate intake with no differentiation of protein source. But, what if the moderate carbohydrate group had also been subdivided into meat eaters and plant eaters? Would meat-based, low-carb diets still be less healthy than meat-based, moderate-carbohydrate diets? Would plant-based,  low-carb diets still be healthier than plant-based, moderate-carb diets? We have no idea.

 

The Bottom Line

The low-carb wars are raging. Several studies have reported that low-carb diets increase risk of mortality (shorten lifespan). However, two recent studies have come to the opposite conclusion. Those studies have low-carb enthusiasts doing a victory lap and claiming it is time to rewrite nutritional guidelines to favor low-carb diets.

However, a study just published a couple of weeks ago resolves the conflicting data and finally answers the question: “How much carbohydrate should we be eating if we desire a long and healthy life?” The answer is “Enough.”

I call this “The Goldilocks Effect.”  According to this study, high carbohydrate intake is unhealthy. Low carbohydrate intake is unhealthy. But, moderate carbohydrate intake is “just right.”

Specifically, this study reported:

  • Moderate carbohydrate intake (50-55%) is healthiest. This is also the carbohydrate intake recommended by current nutritional guidelines.
  • All major studies agree that very high carbohydrate intake (60-70%) is unhealthy. It shortens life expectancy of a 50-year old by about a year.
  • All studies that cover the full range of carbohydrate intake agree that low carbohydrate intake (<40%) is also unhealthy. It shortens life expectancy of a 50-year old by about 4 years.
  • The studies quoted by low carb enthusiasts to support their claim that low-carb diets are healthy don’t include carbohydrate intakes below 40%. That means their claims are misleading. The studies they quote are incapable of detecting the risks of low carbohydrate diets.
  • Meat-based, low-carb diets decrease life expectancy while plant-based, low carb diets increase life expectancy. This is consistent with the results of previous studies.

The authors concluded: “Our findings suggest a negative long-term association between life-expectancy and both low carbohydrate and high carbohydrate diets…These data also provide further evidence that animal-based low carbohydrate diets should be discouraged. Alternatively, when restricting carbohydrate intake, replacement of carbohydrates with predominantly plant-based fats and proteins could be considered as a long-term approach to healthy aging.”

For more details, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Trackback from your site.

Leave a comment

Recent Videos From Dr. Steve Chaney

READ THE ARTICLE
READ THE ARTICLE

Latest Article

Is Our Microbiome Affected By Exercise?

Posted November 6, 2018 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Microbiome Mysteries

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

is our microbiome affected by exerciseIn a recent post,  What is Your Microbiome and Why is it Important,  of “Health Tips From The Professor” I outlined how our microbiome, especially the bacteria that reside in our intestine, influences our health. That influence can be either good or bad depending on which species of bacteria populate our gut. I also discussed how the species of bacteria that populate our gut are influenced by what we eat and, in turn, influence how the foods we eat are metabolized.

I shared that there is an association between obesity and the species of bacteria that inhabit our gut. At present, this is a “chicken and egg” conundrum. We don’t know whether obesity influences the species of bacteria that inhabit our gut, or whether certain species of gut bacteria cause us to become obese.

Previous studies have shown that there is also an association between exercise and the species of bacteria that inhabit our gut. In particular, exercise is associated with an increase in bacteria that metabolize fiber in our diets to short chain fatty acids such as butyrate. That is potentially important because butyrate is a primary food source for intestinal mucosal cells (the cells that line the intestine). Butyrate helps those cells maintain the integrity of the gut barrier (which helps prevent things like leaky gut syndrome). It also has an anti-inflammatory effect on the immune cells that reside in the gut.

However, associations don’t prove cause and effect. We don’t know whether the differences in gut bacteria were caused by differences in diet or leanness in populations who exercised regularly and those who did not. This is what the present study (JM Allen et al, Medicine & Science In Sports & Exercise, 50: 747-757, 2018 ) was designed to clarify.  Is our microbiome affected by exercise?

 

How Was The Study Designed?

is our microbiome affected by exercise studyThis study was performed at the University of Illinois. Thirty-two previously sedentary subjects (average age = 28) were recruited for the study. Twenty of them were women and 12 were men. Prior to starting the study, the participants filled out a 7-day dietary record. They were asked to follow the same diet throughout the 12-week study. In addition, a dietitian designed a 3-day food menu based on their 7-day recall for the participants to follow prior to each fecal collection to determine species of gut bacteria.

The study included a two-week baseline when their baseline gut bacteria population was measured, and participants were tested for fitness. This was followed by a 6-week exercise intervention consisting of three supervised 30 to 60-minute moderate to vigorous exercise sessions per week. The exercise was adapted to the participant’s initial fitness level, and both the intensity and duration of exercise increased over the 6-week exercise intervention. Following the exercise intervention, all participants were instructed to maintain their diet and refrain from exercise for another 6 weeks. This was referred to as the “washout period.”

VO2max (a measure of fitness) was determined at baseline and at the end of the exercise intervention. Stool samples for determination of gut bacteria and concentrations of short-chain fatty acids were taken at baseline, at the end of the exercise intervention, and again after the washout period.

In short, this study divided participants into lean and obese categories and held diet constant. The only variable was the exercise component.

 

Is Our Microbiome Affected By Exercise?

is our microbiome affected by exercise fitnessThe results of the study were as follows:

  • Fitness, as assessed by VO2max, increased for all the participants, and the increase in fitness was comparable for both lean and obese subjects.
  • Exercise induced a change in the population of gut bacteria, and the change was comparable in lean and obese subjects.
  • Exercise increased fecal concentrations of butyrate and other short-chain fatty acids in the lean subjects, but not in obese subjects.
  • The exercise-induced changes in gut bacteria and short-chain fatty acid production were largely reversed once exercise training ceased.

The authors concluded: “These findings suggest that exercise training induces compositional and functional changes in the human gut microbiota that are dependent on obesity status, independent of diet, and contingent on the sustainment of exercise.” [Note: To be clear, the exercise-induced changes in both gut bacteria and short-chain fatty acid production were independent of diet and contingent on the sustainment of exercise. However, only the production of short-chain fatty acids was dependent on obesity status.]

 

What Does This Study Mean For You?

is our microbiome affected by exercise gut bacteriaThere are two important take home lessons from this study.

  • With respect to our gut bacteria, I have consistently told you that microbiome research is an emerging science. This is a small study, so you should regard it as the beginning of our understanding of the effect of exercise on our microbiome rather than conclusive by itself. It is consistent with previous studies showing an association between exercise and a potentially beneficial shift in the population of gut bacteria.

The strength of the study is that it shows that exercise-induced changes in beneficial gut bacteria are probably independent of diet. However, it is the first study to look at the interaction between obesity, exercise and gut bacteria, so I would interpret those results with caution until they have been replicated in subsequent studies.

  • With respect to exercise, this may be yet another reason to add regular physical activity to your healthy lifestyle program. We already know that exercise is important for cardiovascular health. We also know that exercise increases lean muscle mass which increases metabolic rate and helps prevent obesity. There is also excellent evidence that exercise improves mood and helps prevent cognitive decline as we age.

Exercise is also associated with decreased risk of colon cancer and irritable bowel disease. This effect of exercise has not received much attention because the mechanism of this effect is unclear. This study shows that exercise increases the fecal concentrations of butyrate and other short-chain fatty acids. Perhaps, this provides the mechanism for the interaction between exercise and intestinal health.

 

The Bottom Line

A recent study has reported that:

  • Exercise induces a change in the population of gut bacteria, and the change was comparable in lean and obese subjects.
  • Exercise causes an increase in the number of gut bacteria that produce butyrate and other short-chain fatty acids that are beneficial for gut health.
  • These effects are independent of diet, but do not appear to be independent of obesity because they were seen in lean subjects but not in obese subjects.
  • The exercise-induced changes in gut bacteria and short-chain fatty acid production are largely reversed once exercise training ceases.

The authors concluded: “These findings suggest that exercise training induces compositional and functional changes in the human gut microbiota that are dependent on obesity status, independent on diet, and contingent on the sustainment of exercise.”

For more details and my interpretation of the data, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

UA-43257393-1